Parental responsibility

What is parental responsibility?

The term parental responsibility refers to all the duties, powers, rights and responsibilities that a parent possesses by law in relation to their child and any property belonging to that child. Examples of parental responsibilities include:

  • providing a home for the child;
  • protecting the child and looking after their property;
  • making any decisions about medical treatment and education;
  • financially providing for the child (this duty rests on all parents, not just those with parental responsibility);
  • naming the child and agreeing to any name change;
  • disciplining the child.

Who has parental responsibility?

If a child’s parents are married at the time the child is born, or they jointly adopt a child, they both automatically have parental responsibility. If the parents were married when the child was born or a child was jointly adopted, both parents retain parental responsibility on divorce.

If the child’s parents are unmarried, the mother alone will automatically have parental responsibility from the child’s birth. An unmarried father can gain parental responsibility by:

  • jointly registering the child’s birth;
  • coming to a parental responsibility agreement with the mother;
  • applying for a parental responsibility order through the courts.

When making the order the courts main consideration will be the child’s welfare. The court will also take into account:

  • the commitment the father has demonstrated towards the child;
  • the attachment between father and child;
  • the father’s purposes for applying for the order.

Same sex parents

Same-sex partners will both have parental responsibility if they were civil partners at the time of the treatment, eg donor insemination or fertility treatment.

For same-sex partners who aren’t civil partners, the second parent can get parental responsibility by:

  • applying for parental responsibility if a parental agreement was made;
  • becoming a civil partner of the other parent and making a parental responsibility agreement;
  • jointly registering the birth.

Others who can gain parental responsibility

Parental responsibility can be acquired by individuals and authorities other than the parents in certain circumstances. For example, anyone in whose favour a residence order (an order made to clarify where and with whom the child is to live) has been made may also acquire parental responsibility. This could be the child’s grandparents, for example, or another of the child’s relatives or a guardian.

If a child is taken into local authority care, whether by means of an emergency protection order (an order made to remove the child for a short period of time as there is reasonable cause to believe the child is suffering or will suffer significant harm if not removed) or, by means of a care order (the court places the child under the care of the local authority), the local authority will assume parental responsibility for the duration of the orders. During that time, parental responsibility is shared with the parents.

Can I be a parent without having parental responsibility?

A father who does not have parental responsibility can still act like a parent to their child. There are a lot of fathers without parental responsibility who do not know that they don’t have it and still have healthy relationships with their children. The limitations will be on those fathers’ rights to make certain decisions or take certain actions regarding their children. For example, they would not have access to their children’s health records and they would not be able to give their consent to have their child freed for adoption.

What rights do I have if I don’t have parental responsibility?

Parents without parental responsibility still have basic rights and duties that flow simply from being a parent. This includes:

  • a legal duty to financially support their child – even if they are not living with them – as outlined in the Child Support Act 1991 and the Child Support, Pensions and Social Security Act 2000;
  • if a child is deceased a parent will have the right to inherit that child’s estate;
  • a parent has a right to apply for section 8 orders which include, a residence order; a contact order (an order setting out the extent to which a child is to have contact with a named individual); a prohibited steps order (an order prohibiting certain actions in relation to the child, eg, taking the child out of the country) and; a specific issue order (an order concerning certain aspects of a child’s upbringing such as, eg, medical treatment or religious education);
  • children in the care of a local authority should have reasonable contact with their parents;
  • when an application for an emergency protection order is made, the parents have a right to be told and can apply to have it discharged;
  • a right to citizenship, for example, being a British citizen mainly passes through parental lineage;
  • parents cannot marry or have incestuous sexual relations with their children.

A parent who does not have parental responsibility, therefore, does have some rights and duties regarding their child but they relate more to ensuring the child’s general wellbeing than to their day-to-day upbringing.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.